For a Bold Step Forward
(a reply from Scottish Militant Labour EC to British EC)
We are writing to express our disappointment at your response to our statement, Initial Proposals for a New Scottish Socialist Party.
We can accept some of your criticisms. We agree that there are one or two loose formulations in the original statement. For example, we acknowledge that the comment about the upward curve of the British economy "reinforcing the grip of free market ideology" is too one-sided and we accept your reservations. We accept also that our comment about "building a Marxist organisation in isolation from the rest of the left" should have read, "building a Marxist organisation independently of the rest of the left".
We are sure that you will agree, however, that in the context of our overall proposals, these are incidental points. On the proposals themselves, we believe there are fundamental differences of approach, and that the entire International will benefit from an open debate around these differences.
As we indicate in a separate letter, we do not fully accept that our proposals came as a "bombshell". However, we do recognise that the proposals, if implemented, would signify a radical new turn for the forces of Marxism in Scotland - in effect, a ‘Scottish Turn, Part 2’.
Nonetheless, we believe that the proposals are entirely consistent with the traditions of Marxism and Trotskyism internationally. We are sure that the British EC would not dispute the fact that the history of the Marxist movement internationally is not solely a history of arithmetical progression. At different stages, fusions, mergers, and amalgamations have been carried out in order to enlarge the active forces of socialism and to expand the influence of Marxist ideas.
The British EC acknowledges some of the historical examples that we have provided, including the example of the founding of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in 1920. However, the comrades then go on to present an over-simplified and misleading version of the story of the formation of the CPGB.
The comrades effectively gloss over the political differences that existed among the various groupings that came together to form the CPGB. The biggest of these forces was the British Socialist Party (BSP) which, in turn, evolved from the Social Democratic Federation - which subscribed to Marx’s economic analysis, but which Engels had described as "a sect which has ossified Marxism into a dogma". It had opposed strikes and denounced the trade unions as reformist organisations which diverted the working class away from the struggle for socialism.
Later, a section of the BSP leadership had supported the first world war. Even at the time of the formation of the CPGB, the BSP leadership was extremely weak politically, its weakness reinforced by the departure of its only leader of any real standing, John McLean, who characterised the BSP as "a heterogeneous mixture of anarchists, sentimentalists, syndicalists, with a sprinkling of Marxists." Leaders of the BSP included Cecil Malone, previously an active anti-socialist who just two years previously had been elected to Parliament as a Coalition Liberal.
Other groupings which combined to form the CPGB included branches of the reformist Independent Labour Party (ILP); syndicalists from the Socialist Labour Party; and assorted sectarians and centrists (defined by Trotsky as those trends that are between reformism and Marxism).
When the new party was formed it had 3,000 members - a much smaller organisation proportionate to the population than the likely size of the Scottish Socialist Party that we have proposed.
It is true that the new party formally accepted the "programme, perspectives and statutes of the Communist International". But it is an over-simplification to suggest that what emerged was "a politically unified party on the basis of clear principles."
In fact, syndicalist and sectarian methods continued to hold sway for the first few years of the CPGB’s existence. Thus in the East Woolwich by-election in March 1921, the CPGB launched an abstentionist campaign, denouncing the Tories and Labour as "two of a kind" - even though Lenin and the Communist International had argued strongly for Communist participation in the Labour Party. The CPGB even boasted that their campaign had cost Labour the seat (by 683 votes out of 27,000). This, of course, was at a time when Labour had never been in power; and when a radicalised working class was turning en masse to Labour. Numerous other examples could be cited to illustrate the political inexperience and weakness of the leadership of the CPGB in that period.
We have to ask the comrades to contrast the role of that leadership with the track record of the existing leadership of Scottish Militant Labour and to pose the question point blank to the British EC: ‘Do you seriously believe that the formation of a new party, led primarily by the existing leadership of Scottish Militant Labour (with 150 years collective experience of the Marxist movement embodied in the eight-strong Scottish Militant Labour EC alone), will lead unavoidably (our emphasis) to the "erosion of a principled commitment to the perspectives, programme and strategy of revolutionary Marxism"?’
Such extreme pessimism and lack of confidence in the leadership of Scottish Militant Labour stands out in dismal contrast to the approach of Lenin, Trotsky and the other leaders of the Communist International who worked with material in Britain and in many other countries which was far less experienced and far less tested and proven in action than the current leadership of Scottish Militant Labour. We will return to this point later in the reply.
The EC reply, we believe, artificially counterposes the concept of a revolutionary party to the idea of a broad socialist party in a rigid and undialectical fashion. First of all, there is no such thing as a chemically pure revolutionary party. There can be, it is true, at different stages of history, small, tightly-knit, homogenous, Marxist organisations. Some of the international sections of our own organisation are precisely at this stage of development.
At the other end of the spectrum there have existed, and continue to exist, broad workers’ parties which are, in effect, loose coalitions. The early Labour Party is perhaps the most clear example of such a formation; indeed, Lenin suggested that the British Labour Party was "not a party at all in the ordinary sense of the word."
However, in between these two polar opposites there can exist transitional formations in which the features of a revolutionary party and those of a ‘broad socialist party’ co-exist side by side.
The RSDLP, for example, developed into a broad party at different stages in the unfolding of the struggle against Tsarism. It had a revolutionary wing in the shape of the Bolsheviks - which constituted the leadership of the party for most of its history - and a minority reformist wing in the form of the Mensheviks. At different stages, the party also included the Jewish workers’ organisation, the Bund, as well as national Marxist parties from Poland, Lithuania and the Ukraine.
Between January 1905 and the Spring of 1906, the RSDLP grew from 8,400 members to 48,000 members. A year later, it grew to 84,000. This explosive growth had a dramatic effect on the nature of the party itself. For the first time, Lenin in 1906 described the RSDLP as a mass party - and he was not just referring to numbers: "The new organisation must be definitely much broader than were the old circles... the new nucleus will most likely have to be a less rigid, more ‘free’, more ‘loose’ organisation."
Answering those who raised fears that throwing open the gates of the party would pave the way for dilution and opportunism, Lenin responded: "Don’t invent bugaboos, comrades! Don’t forget that in every live and growing party there will always be elements of instability, vacillation, wavering. But these elements can be influenced, and they will submit to the steadfast and solid core of Social-Democrats [i.e. Marxists]."
Of course, here Lenin was referring to the ‘danger’ of the party being swamped by brand new members. Nonetheless, the principles remain the same. The basic issue at stake in the Scottish proposal is whether or not a core of experienced and tested Marxist activists will be capable of influencing and guiding the broad membership of this new party; or whether the Marxists within it will, as the EC suggests, inevitably fall prey to the pressures of opportunism and reformism.
It is true that the Bolsheviks organised themselves as a separate faction within the RSDLP. However, the degree of organisation of the Bolshevik faction varied according to concrete circumstances.
For Lenin, the political programme took precedence over organisational differentiation. For example, following the 1906 Unity Congress, in which the Mensheviks won a majority, Lenin wrote: "The Social-Democratic proletariat and its Party must be united. Disagreements on organisation have been almost entirely eliminated... The fight for posts, fear of the other ‘faction’ must be eliminated. Let us have really united party organisations, in which there will only be a purely ideological struggle between different trends of Social-Democratic thought. It will not be easy to achieve this; nor shall we achieve it at one stroke. But... we must now work for the complete and consistent putting into effect of this organisational ideal."
At the same time, Lenin explained that the lines of ideological disagreement had become sharpened: "There is a Right and a Left Wing in all the Social-Democratic Parties in Europe; and their existence in our party has been evident for some time."
At a later stage, in 1910, the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks agreed to disband their separate organisations and to merge, to suspend their publications and to pool the financial resources - even though there had been a history of bitter ideological conflict between the two trends.
In the event, the agreement was broken, not by the Bolsheviks, but by the Mensheviks. Only in 1912, with four-fifths of the organised working class behind it, was the Bolshevik faction finally declared a party.
Even then, different trends emerged at different stages within the new party, culminating in bitter public clashes between Lenin and the other principal leaders of the Bolshevik Party throughout the course of 1917.
Interestingly, it was the ‘Old Bolsheviks’ who claimed to be the guardians of Marxist orthodoxy, steeped in theory and tradition, who revealed themselves to be incapable of providing revolutionary leadership when the crunch came; Lenin was ultimately forced to rely for political backing for his revolutionary tactics and strategy upon that layer of radicalised new members who flooded into the party in 1917. At the same time, Trotsky - who prior to 1917 was an opponent of Bolshevism - emerged to play a decisive role in the October Revolution.
That, of course, is not to throw out the baby with the bath water: without a strong revolutionary party in the shape of the Bolsheviks, the victory of the working class would not have been possible. However, it does underline the fact that organisational arrangements cannot by themselves guarantee that any national leadership will be up to the tasks posed by history.
We can also cite examples of existing broad socialist parties, including mass parties, which have evolved rapidly from reformism - and in some cases from anarcho-syndicalism - to revolutionary Marxism under the impact of events.
When the Communist International was formed with the enormous prestige of the victorious Russian Revolution behind it, a diverse range of formations gravitated towards it. These included the Norwegian Labour Party; the 300,000 strong Italian Socialist Party; the 150,000 strong French Socialist Party; the million strong Spanish anarchist trade union federation, the CNT; and other large anarcho-syndicalist movements in Italy and France
Of course, this was a revolutionary period where the Russian Revolution exerted enormous gravitational pull. Nonetheless, it is important to recognise that the parties and organisations which came together to form the Communist International consisted of a diverse ragbag of Marxists, anarchists, syndicalists, left reformists, centrists, and ultra-left sectarians.
It is true that the Communist International laid down 21 conditions of membership; in practice, however, many of the parties and organisations that affiliated to the Comintern only applied those that suited them. The type of attitude that prevailed was expressed in a humorous form in a scene in the film ‘Reds’ when a boisterous mass meeting of the Comintern votes for a smoking ban - and the delegates continue to smoke away regardless.
The leadership of the French Communist Party (previously the French Socialist Party), for example, continued as a parliamentary reformist party under a different name. Cachin, the editor of L’Humanité, the party’s daily newspaper, had been an ultra-chauvinist during the first world war and had scathingly condemned the October Revolution. But like many other reformist leaders, he rapidly adapted to the prevailing revolutionary currents.
From a different starting point, the anarchist leadership of the CNT also accepted in words the statutes of the Comintern but continued to pursue a syndicalist course and eventually broke with the Comintern.
In Germany, the newly-formed Communist Party (KPD), which evolved from the Spartacist League, had an ultra-left policy, promoting the idea of a boycott of elections (a policy which was opposed by two of the party’s key leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht). The KPD was also strongly opposed to centralism within the party and was organised along federal lines.
Yet all of these diverse formations, many of which were themselves awash with internal tendencies and factions, were welcomed into the Communist International. Few of them could be characterised as pure revolutionary parties with political cohesion on all issues of "perspectives, revolutionary strategy, strategy on the national question, tactical methods of struggle and methods of party building" (to quote from the EC letter). Most were broad parties with a mass membership and influence. Yet they were simultaneously, in a very general sense, revolutionary parties dedicated to the overthrow of capitalism.
We could also cite the example of the ILP which broke from Labour in 1932. Leon Trotsky posed the possibility of the ILP - which had different currents within it, including Stalinist and reformist influences - being transformed into a revolutionary party. He advised his tiny and inexperienced group of followers in Britain to participate as a faction in the ILP with the aim of "transforming it into a truly Marxist party".
This is not to argue that conditions in Scotland correspond exactly to the tumultuous decades of the 1920s and 1930s. We have come through a period of prolonged political stability - which will eventually make way for a rerun of the mighty class battles of the past. But we are still in a preparatory period rather than a revolutionary period. Consequently, the construction of a party of socialist revolution will be a more protracted process.
Socialists in the 1990s
We do not pretend that we are on the verge of creating either a mass revolutionary party or a broad, mass socialist party in Scotland. The forces which we are working alongside and discussing with are relatively small, although not insignificant. However, there are general lessons to be learned from the approach of Lenin, Trotsky and the leaders of the Comintern. Lenin warned of "communist vanity that claims to know everything and is too infatuated with itself" - and argued for engaging with forces outside the ranks of the communist movement.
Yet, paradoxically, the task of organisationally and ideologically delineating the forces of revolutionary Marxism from other socialist currents was in the period 1919-1920 a much more crucial task than is the case today.
At that stage, with the battle lines being drawn across Europe between the forces of capitalism and the forces of socialism, strategic and even detailed tactical questions assumed life or death importance. It is precisely in a period of that character that the differences that separate revolutionary Marxism from other socialist trends take on potentially monumental significance.
This point was made very effectively by Peter during the name-change debate in England and Wales last year. During this debate, the leadership of Scottish Militant Labour supported the name-change proposal from the outset. It is worth quoting one of Peter’s central arguments in favour of the name change in detail, because the wider political points are highly relevant to this discussion:
"The 1930s was a period of intensified struggle between the classes when the choice before a number of countries was either revolution or counter revolution. This was the case in Germany, Italy, France at certain stages, and in Spain. We also had the existence of the first workers’ state, the Soviet Union, which despite the Moscow Trials and the one-party totalitarian regime, still attracted the advanced workers through the existence of the planned economy. There was a broad socialist consciousness and a big layer of advanced workers who considered themselves not just socialists, but revolutionaries and Marxists. Trotskyism’s main task was to differentiate itself from reformism and Stalinism... The main task facing us now is to win support for a socialist programme and for socialist ideas generally." (Name Change Debate, Page 3, Socialist Party Members Bulletin Number 18).
Peter did correctly go on to say that we also faced the task of building a revolutionary party; however, in all of the written and verbal discussions during the name-change debate, the task of rehabilitating the basic programme of socialism was correctly given the strongest emphasis.
Small mass party
The British EC also promoted the idea during the name-change debate of building a "small mass party numbering tens of thousands, particularly in the next two, three or four years." This perspective was dismissed as ridiculously over-optimistic by opponents of the name change. However, although we are not in a position to judge exactly what the prospects are in England and Wales over the next two to three years, we can say that there is at least a strong prospect of building a ‘small mass party’ in Scotland during the next period.
Given the population differential, a party in Scotland numbering 2,000 would be the equivalent of a 20,000 strong party across Britain as a whole. It is not pie in the sky to suggest that such a party could be built, given the looming political developments in Scotland and given also the central role which our organisation now plays on the left of Scottish politics.
However, we would have to add the proviso that there are two preconditions for accomplishing such a task: firstly, the unification of the existing forces of the Scottish Socialist Alliance (and, as far as possible, other socialist forces) into a more tightly-knit and cohesive party structure; and, secondly, the redirection of our existing apparatus towards the single-minded task of building such a party.
We could attempt to carry on with the present arrangement. We could even change the name of the Scottish Socialist Alliance to the Scottish Socialist Party, but with more or less the same constitution (i.e. with Scottish Militant Labour continuing with our own paper, full-time staff and branches). Alternatively, we could change Scottish Militant Labour to the Socialist Party of Scotland, or some other variant, and carry on with the same arrangements under a different name. However, if we decide on either of these options, we have to be clear: we will not build a small mass party of thousands on the basis of the continuation of the present arrangements, superficially modified or otherwise.
As we argue in the statement, Initial Proposals for a Scottish Socialist Party, the initiative to launch the Scottish Socialist Alliance was absolutely correct and justified for the period we have just come through. But the limitations of this strategy are now becoming increasingly apparent. All our public activities are being conducted through the Alliance; all the media coverage we receive is now based on the Alliance; all the election campaigns we fight are under the banner of the Alliance. Yet in the localities we are pulling in a different direction, towards the building of Scottish Militant Labour.
Of course, we could continue to build Scottish Militant Labour on a modest scale while maintaining the public profile of the Alliance. But it would be extremely difficult to transform Scottish Militant Labour into a small mass party numbering thousands while fighting elections and intervening in the trade unions and in communities under the banner of the Scottish Socialist Alliance.
That simple fact has to be our starting point in any debate on the way forward. Some people may argue that we should therefore abandon the Scottish Socialist Alliance and strike out independently either under the name Scottish Militant Labour, Scottish Socialist Party or whatever. However, no-one, including the British EC, is seriously suggesting that we revert to an independent strategy. Such a step would condemn our organisation to the margins of Scottish politics at precisely the time when we can move forward to play a major role in events as they unfold.
Programme and policy
The last two to three years has, in effect, been a transitional, or preparatory, period for Scottish Militant Labour. During this time, we have accumulated numerous links and points of support and influence among the working class including within the organised trade union movement.
At the same time, we have established our programme as the programme of the emerging left in Scotland. Unfortunately the British EC letter, perhaps inadvertently, misrepresents the political programme of the Scottish Socialist Alliance. This, in turn, can convey a misleading impression of the nature of the new party which we are proposing. The comrades refer specifically to the draft Scottish Socialist Alliance Manifesto for the Scottish Parliamentary Elections. They rightly point out that this manifesto "raises radical demands for improving the rights and conditions of the Scottish people" but that it does not "call for the overthrow of capitalism and a new socialist Scotland with an internationalist perspective".
This criticism is perfectly valid, but omits one important detail: the draft Manifesto for the Scottish Parliament is only one small part of the Scottish Socialist Alliance programme. It is a specific manifesto, geared towards a specific set of elections. And, of course, just as the comrades in London will draw up a limited, partial programme for the new London assembly when it is established, we have drawn up a partial programme which "takes account of the limitations of the parliament".
However, let us examine some of the other programmatic documents of the Scottish Socialist Alliance, starting with the basic ‘Statement of Aims’. "The Scottish Socialist Alliance stands for the socialist transformation of society. To replace the free market capitalist economy with an economic system based on democratic ownership and control of the key sectors of the economy. A system based on social need and environmental protection rather than private profit and ecological destruction." (Statement of Aims, Point 2)
Or : "The Scottish Socialist Alliance actively promotes the international solidarity of the working class and the oppressed to defeat capitalism and imperialism. While preserving its political and constitutional autonomy, the Scottish Socialist Alliance will build the closest possible links with socialists in other parts of Britain, across Europe and world wide. The Scottish Socialist Alliance stands ultimately for a new socialist world, where poverty, starvation, environmental destruction, exploitation, war and racial hatred are eradicated." (Statement of Aims, Point 6)
The Scottish Socialist Alliance Constitution also imposes rigid conditions upon its public representatives: "All Scottish Socialist Alliance elected representatives must be prepared to: (a) represent local/area/national policy and be accountable to the appropriate Scottish Socialist Alliance body. (b) accept personal pay no more than the average skilled workers’ wage, with any surplus being donated to the movement. (c) participate in non-violent direct action campaigns and activities in pursuit of the aims and objectives of the Scottish Socialist Alliance on the same basis as any other Scottish Socialist Alliance member." (Scottish Socialist Alliance Structures, Public Elections, Point 4.1)
Such conditions represent an important safeguard against that layer which the British EC letter refers to, whose primary concern is obtaining seats in the new parliament. If time or space permitted we could also provide an abundance of detail from The Charter For Socialist Change - a general programmatic document which sets out a whole range of socialist policies on a multitude of issues as diverse as the NHS, Northern Ireland and the European Union. Taken together, all of the programmatic documents of the Scottish Socialist Alliance constitute nothing less than a detailed transitional programme for the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of workers’ power, updated and applied to the concrete conditions that exist in Scotland.
However, as a kind of double insurance policy, the British EC then suggests that "there have been many examples in history where different trends or parties have formally adhered to a socialist programme, even a Marxist programme, but do not by any means consistently base their activity on Marxist strategy and tactics." That may well be the case. But such statements are absolutely irrelevant to the current debate unless the comrades are prepared to provide more concrete criticism of the current activities, strategy and tactics of Scottish Militant Labour and the Scottish Socialist Alliance.
Lessons from America
When, under the guidance of Trotsky in the 1930s, the US revolutionary group, the Communist League of America (CLA), fused with the amorphous American Workers Party (AWP), the CLA leader James Cannon answered similar objections that had been raised within his own organisation:
"Unity between the Trotskyist organisation and the Musteite organisation was unquestionably a progressive action. It brought together two groups with different origins and experiences which, nevertheless, had approached at least in the formal sense of the word, an agreement on the programme. The only way to test out whether this agreement was real and thoroughgoing or only formal; the only way to learn which elements in each of the groups were capable of contributing to the further progressive development of the movement, was by unification, by bringing them together and testing these questions out in the course of common experience."
Cannon, by the way, described the AWP as "a political menagerie containing every political species from proletarian revolutionary to reactionary scoundrel and faker." Nonetheless, the apparatuses of the two parties were fully merged; the CLA, even though it commanded a numerical majority, agreed to a 50-50 arrangement with official positions in the party divided equally between the two groups.
Cannon made the point: "We took a liberal and conciliatory attitude on the organisation question, reserving our intransigence for the question of the programme." Cannon also described how the CLA was happy to appoint AWP leader, AJ Muste (a former religious preacher who later went back to preaching), to the key organisational position of National Secretary of the new party: "We were more interested in the editorship (of the party paper) because that shapes more directly the ideology of the movement."
The British EC letter claims that, in this instance, in contrast to the Scottish proposal, "the merger of the two parties led to the creation of a new revolutionary party and not some broad formation."
Once again, the comrades fall into the trap of rigid formalism. All political formations contain varying elements, contradictory currents, and transitional features. If anything, the party formed by the Cannon-Muste fusion would have been a hybrid organisation containing elements of a revolutionary party and elements of "some broad formation".
Muste himself was repeatedly attacked by the Communist Party in the US as "bourgeois nationalist." And according to Cannon, Muste’s party included open Stalinists, Young Women’s Christian Association activists, and a sprinkling of bible students.
In an interesting postscript to the fusion, Cannon sharply criticised elements within his own party who "came tearing into this united organisation with a ‘Bolshevisation’ programme. They were going to take out these centrist Musteites and make Bolsheviks out of them, whether they liked it or not. And quick too. Discussions! They scared some of the Musteites out of their wits with their discussions, theses and clarifications until all hours of the night. They went about searching for ‘issues’, hounding all who might be deviating from the straight and narrow path of doctrine. No peace, no fraternal common work, no education in a calm atmosphere, no will to let the young party develop naturally and organically."
Judging by the tone and content of the letter from the British EC, it seems that the comrades want us to go tearing into this new party and Bolshevise it - before negotiations have even begun to set the party up!
The comrades suggest that our original statement is too "sweeping and superficial in referring to the blurring of ‘traditional battle lines which divided the left’ in the past." However, we did not suggest that these lines had been erased; simply that they had been blurred. Of course, we can legitimately debate to what degree they have been blurred; but to deny that they have been blurred is to underestimate the political fallout from the collapse of Stalinism.
To a lesser extent, it is also to underestimate the crisis of reformism, brought about by the abject failures of governments across Europe elected on the basis of reformist manifestos. Of course, reformism has not been extinguished; mass parties such as Communist Refoundation in Italy continue to promote a left reformist programme. But the fact that this party and other former Stalinist formations, including the United Left in Spain and the Party of Democratic Socialism in East Germany, openly tolerate the existence of organised groupings themselves as ‘Trotskyist’ within their party structures illustrates the extent of the sea change that has occurred.
The General Secretary of the Communist Party of Scotland, who is also a leading member of the Scottish Socialist Alliance, has argued that Trotsky’s analysis of the Soviet Union has been vindicated by history and recommends Trotsky’s Revolution Betrayed as the best analysis ever written of the betrayal of Stalinism. That is not to suggest that there are no differences either now or in the future. That would be both naive and absurd.
Nor do we pretend that we have never in the past been able to "reach agreement on a campaigning fighting programme with others on the left, including some from a Stalinist tradition." What is important, however, is that our ideology is treated much more seriously than was the case in the past, precisely because that ideology has stood the test of world events.
The British EC letter takes us to task for suggesting that our organisation has also "adapted politically and organisationally" to new conditions. We did not anywhere state that "we have abandoned key ideas which were at the heart of the Trotskyist tradition". That suggestion in the British EC letter is a misrepresentation of our position. We are not sure if the comrades are attempting to deny that "partly in response to external conditions, and partly because we have been more and more involved in the living struggles of the working class (we have) been forced to adapt politically and organisationally"?
It is an indisputable fact that we have made radical political and organisational changes, especially in the past seven years. We changed our long-term orientation to the Labour Party and launched independent organisations fighting elections in Scotland, England and Wales. In Scotland we have made far-reaching changes to our policy on the national question. We have no need to be defensive about these changes: any organisation which does not exist in a state of rigor mortis will regularly adapt and change as conditions themselves evolve.
In the article Future Electoral Strategy in Scotland (from Militant Labour Members Bulletin Number 12), written in September 1995 - before the Scottish Socialist Alliance even existed - we made the point: "There are important political divisions within the left which could not be overcome simply by declaring a new party. At this stage for example, groups like the Scottish Socialist Movement and Communist Party of Scotland are cautious about advancing a full-blooded socialist programme for Scotland. They are also inclined to expect that significant reforms can be achieved by a Scottish parliament. And, in addition, the national question will inevitably be a source of debate and contention within the left generally in Scotland."
Perhaps we were unfair in our political assessment of these comrades who are now our allies within the Scottish Socialist Alliance. Or perhaps they have shifted. But one point is clear; within the Scottish Socialist Alliance there are now no differences of opinion on advancing a full-blooded socialist programme. Nor are there any illusions that Labour’s devolved Scottish Parliament will be capable of introducing radical reforms.
And on the national question itself, there is now general agreement. Our latest policy document which advocates an independent socialist Scotland with an internationalist outlook - and which appeared in a condensed version in the Scottish Socialist Voice - has generally been welcomed within the Scottish Socialist Alliance and within the left generally. We have even had ex-Labour Party members joining Scottish Militant Labour on the strength of that document; and SNP activists moving into the orbit of the organisation, because they agree not just with the conclusions we draw, but with the Marxist analysis we provide on the national question.
With perhaps a few isolated exceptions, we believe there is today a much greater degree of political cohesion than was the case when the above article was written. And we should also add that the article itself predicted: "On the basis of experience, these organisations could be won to accept our analysis and be won to our programme. Ultimately a fusion may be possible, on a much more clear cut political programme than it would be possible to agree at the present time." (Militant Labour Members Bulletin Number 12, September 1995)
At that stage, there was no opposition forthcoming from the British EC, which would suggest that either the comrades have changed their opinion on tactics; or that they are prepared to accept the possibilities of fusion, merger etc, in the abstract - but as soon as the issue is posed concretely, the comrades recoil.
We also have to pose the question: ‘What is a revolutionary party in the present era?’ Is it a party that describes itself as a ‘revolutionary party’? Clearly that is not the case: neither the Socialist Party nor Scottish Militant Labour would meet that criterion.
In England and Wales, even the name Militant was dropped because of its aggressive connotations in the eyes of the broad mass of the public. The comrades also argued that the description ‘revolutionary’ in the context of Britain (although not in the context of France, for example, with its different traditions) would be even more ultra-left. Indeed, whenever Scottish Militant Labour has used the word ‘revolutionary’ in our paper or other publications, we have been taken to task by the British EC for posing our political aims in an ultra-left fashion.
Clearly, a new Scottish Socialist Party is not going to describe itself as a revolutionary party. And of course, no serious socialist or Marxist organisation would fail to declare its aim of achieving a broad base of membership and support.
Therefore, from a purely formal point of view it would be possible to conclude that we are dissolving the ‘revolutionary party’ in favour of a ‘broad party’. But if the comrades were to examine the proposals in a more rounded-out, dialectical way, they would surely draw radically different conclusions.
Campaigns and cadres
The comrades refer to "quite a weak internal situation (in Scotland) in terms of the development of cadres, organisational structures, and finance." We accept that our internal structures have been affected by "the enormous demands of campaigning activity, election campaigns and so on". They have also been affected by our involvement in the Alliance and the difficulties we have encountered in attempting to simultaneously promote and build two parties with the same programme.
In addition, they have been affected - probably to an even greater extent - by the difficult objective situation of the past few years. And yes, we are prepared to raise our hands and admit that from time to time we have been guilty of administrative negligence.
However, we believe that the comments are one-sided and imbalanced. It is true that the organisation in Scotland is weaker numerically than it was five or ten years ago. However, there has been a general weakening of the forces of socialism, not just in Scotland but across Britain as a whole.
We believe that, if anything, our organisation has held together relatively well. The fact that we have been able to launch the first native Scottish socialist newspaper that has existed since the 1950s, which has a far bigger sale per head of population than any other socialist newspaper in Britain, is an indication that our organisation has been able to go forward even in a difficult period.
Moreover, although the Scottish organisation has been thrown back numerically over the past five to ten years, its specific weight on the left and within the working class generally has grown dramatically. And, of course, our influence has grown enormously during this period.
We would readily concede that, partly as a result of the influence of the national question, there has been a more favourable objective situation in Scotland, than exists for example in England or Wales. But we also believe that the abundance of "campaigning activity, election campaigns and so on" in Scotland has helped the strengthen the organisation overall rather than weaken it.
Moreover, the more favourable objective situation in Scotland is in itself partly a product of the role played by Scottish Militant Labour and the Scottish Socialist Alliance in the past. As our original statement proposing a new Scottish Socialist Party demonstrates, the intervention of Scottish Militant Labour and the Scottish Socialist Alliance has played an important part in politicising a substantial layer of the working class.
We believe that the criticisms of our internal structures in the letter from the British EC contains an implication that the balance of our work has been mistaken and that a reorientation is required. Although the comrades do not spell out their conclusions in this letter, we understand that they disapprove of the emphasis that we have placed on mass work, including leading campaigns, intervening broadly in elections, etc.
Of course, we are always willing to discuss suggested improvements in the functioning of the organisation. We are conscious of the internal weaknesses of the organisation, and we constantly strive to develop an interest in theory and ideas. The fact that the national bookshop sells more political material in Scotland than in any other part of Britain in itself illustrates that Scottish Militant Labour is not just an activist organisation.
However, if you are suggesting that we scale down our mass work and our public intervention (and here we seek clarification of the EC’s opposition) we believe that this would lead not to a strengthening of our position, but to a weakening of our position. It is almost a truism of Marxist politics that cadres are shaped not just by ideas, but also by activity and involvement in the broader struggles of the working class.